US watchdog says airlines fall short on service

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WASHINGTON, Sep 26 (Reuters) US airlines have not lived up to their commitment in 2000 to develop plans for ensuring passenger comfort and convenience during long ground delays, a government watchdog said late.

Transportation Department Inspector General Calvin Scovel said yesterday in a report to Congress that major airlines have specifically failed to develop contingencies for stocking enough food and water or sort out when and how they would get passengers off planes during extremely long delays.

''This should be a top priority area for the airlines,'' Scovel said in the report released ahead of hearings in the House of Representatives and Senate on Wednesday and Thursday on airline service.

Scovel's investigation was requested by Transportation Secretary Mary Peters following embarrassing incidents last winter in Texas and New York when storms forced diversions and grounded flights.

The most sensational case involved JetBlue Airways Corp , which mishandled its ground operations at John F Kennedy airport and wound up stranding passengers for as long as 10-1/2 hours and disrupting flights for days.

The incidents and Scovel's inquiry have focused new attention on long delays, which often occur in bad weather but also can be the result of airline scheduling and airport operations.

Based on the first seven months of 2007, Scovel's report found more than 54,000 scheduled flights affecting nearly 3.7 million passengers experienced ground delays of 1 to 5 hours or more. That is an increase of nearly 42 per cent over 2006.

Congress is considering legislation that would force airlines to address the issue. Airlines oppose the measure, saying lawmaker interference could do more harm than good.

However, lawmakers backed away in 2000 after threatening to force better airline customer service, agreeing to see how the carriers responded voluntarily.

In testimony to be delivered on Wednesday to the House Transportation Committee, the industry's top lobbyist, James May of the Air Transport Association, said carriers have taken action since last winter to ''be better prepared'' for long delays and meet the needs of passengers.

''Some carriers have announced firm time frames when passengers will be offered an opportunity to deplane and others have precise internal policies to drive timely decisions,'' May said. ''Plans to ensure water and other provisions will be supplied if needed have been reviewed and updated.'' May also said airlines are hiring more staff, which he said would improve customer service.

But Scovel said seven of the 13 airlines reviewed have not defined what constitutes an extended period of time for meeting the essential needs of passengers, or at what point during a long delay passengers should be allowed to get off a plane.

The biggest airlines are under new pressure from low cost rivals -- including a revived JetBlue -- that are touting customer service as a way to win over passengers.

The newest entrant, Virgin America, launches Washington to San Francisco service today with new planes, leather seats, mood lighting, cutting edge in-flight entertainment, and low prices.

His airline is staking its business on customer service and Virgin America chief executive Fred Reid thinks the broader problem is industry's to solve.

''I think that passengers being stranded on planes is scandalous but I don't know if a Passenger Bill of Rights is going to solve that,'' Reid said in an interview with Reuters.

Reuters KK VP0548

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